I just got back from a 3 day motorbike tour of Bali. It was quite the experience and awesome on so many levels. I whizzed around the eastern half of the island with my big travel backpack squished between my legs checking out the scenery and stopping for a few dives and some relaxing beach time. Bali truly is a beautiful place with it’s impossibly green rice terraces, endless alternating white to black sand beaches, and looming volcanoes as a backdrop to just about everything. Not to mention warung after warung slinging delicious balinese food at pennies on the dollar along the way. But the ride wasn’t all roses. In fact, some parts were more stressful than enjoyable. While I loved it, here’s what I learned and why I probably wouldn’t do it again.
Bali isn’t a small island. It’s actually huge and takes hours upon hours to traverse. I came here with the impression that you could drive around the island in a single day. Boy was I wrong. Maybe its technically possible if you don’t stop for 24 hours, but we’re trying to enjoy our time here, right? And my butt starts to ache after a few hours on the bike. I recommend taking your time. Doing it in at least 3 or 4 days if not more. What’s the rush? Instead of rushing around, perhaps do half the island as I did and cut through the volcanic and mountainous interior for a change of scenery.
The south of Bali doesn’t feel like an island in any way. It’s crowded, smoggy and busy beyond any island of its size. Denpasar is a legit urban sprawl that has basically encompassed the entire south. One afternoon, it took 2 hours of sitting in traffic to get from Uluwatu (southern peninsula) to Sanur (east of Denpasar). It should have taken a third of that time. You’d think the crowds would disperse as you get away from the city, and they do to some extent, but you’re NEVER the only one on the road. I guess if you make some wrong turn down some deserted street at night you may find yourself alone, but the main roads are always alive with motorbikes and it’s rare you get a chance to let your guard down. The northern coasts and mountainous interior are you best bets for isolation. Good luck.
Bali Driving Etiquette
I’ve learned a few new terms during my time here including the “Bali Swerve” and the “Bali Merge.” Humorous sounding enough, but it’s not funny when someone drifts into your lane for no apparent reason or merges onto the main bypass without looking for oncoming traffic. Because of this, it’s best to stay on your toes at all times. Also, use your horn liberally and don’t take offense when they honk at you cause it will be frequent. Warn other drivers when you’re passing and when you’re coming around a sharp corner. They appreciate it, and you should to. Finally, you will probably be passing slower cars and bikes left and right, which helps you get to your destination faster, but it also means you need to be aware of others doing the same. It’s very common to see drivers going three wide on a two lane street in order to pass. After the initial Bali shock, you’ll get used to, but I’d equivalate driving in Bali to playing with fire.
Rules and Avoiding Police
100% of the time, there are no driving laws for locals. Unfortunately its only 99% of the time for tourists. Why the discrepancy? The police love pulling over tourists. Sometimes they’ll cite you for some law you broke, perhaps you past the stop line at a traffic light, or other times, they’re just profiling your tourist status. They know you have money and want a piece of your pie. I was told to not even stop when they blow their whistle at you directing you to the side of the road. If they aren’t being lazy and decide to give pursuit, be prepared to pay the standard 50k Rupiah ($5) and no more. Be insistent and they will eventually relent although they’ll surely threaten you with a much higher penalty for not having a valid motorbike license. They would never take you to the station or actually write you a legit ticket because then they wouldn’t see any of the money in their own pocket. Sad, but that’s how things go down. I got pretty good at hiding behind cars and blending in with other bikes whenever police where present.
Dress for the Road
Locals usually wear long sleeves and pants and while that doesn’t sound very comfortable in the heat, it may help with the tourist profiling. It’s also not a bad idea to cover you skin in case of a fall, but that’s your call. No shirt is the most sure way of announcing your foreigner status. One thing is for sure, if you plan on heading up into the mountains, dress for the cold. I just about froze my face off driving at chilly elevation in shorts and a t-shirt.
Usually insurance isn’t an option at most of the hole in the wall motorbike rental shops, but you should be aware that you are liable for the full cost of the bike. Theft isn’t unheard of (don’t forget your key in the ignition) and accidents do happen. If the bike goes missing, you will be expected to personally replace the bike or pay for its replacement. If you have your own travel insurance, the insurance provider will only recognize the claim if you have a valid motorbike license, something most people don’t possess. Definitely something to keep in mind.